Road to Rugby Glory: Standing on the Shoulders of Past Rugby Greats Who Influenced the Game in Kenya

0
393

By Washington Osiro

I dedicate this victory to all the guys who started this long journey. They deserve it more than anyone else.” – Andrew Amonde

This was Shujaa’s Captain Andrew Amonde paying tribute to Watembezi Pacesetters – the team that originated Kenya’s participation in topflight Sevens Rugby– at the international level. Amonde was speaking after the country’s 2016 Sevens team, coached by ex-Maseno School alum Benjamin Anyimba, run roughshod of the highly fancied and perennial powerhouse Fiji in the Main Cup Finals of the Singapore leg of the World Rugby HSBC to win its one and thus far, only title in the Sevens World Series by a convincing 30-to-7 margin.

The match was not even close. 

Coached by Maseno Old Boy (MOB) Benjamin Anyimba, Kenya navigated pool play by finishing second (in Pool C) to the top team in Africa and one of the best in the world, South Africa’s Blitzbokke. 

“Benji’s” boys were blanked 0-14 by Neil Powell’s speedsters in their opening match but redeemed themselves with a 21-7 manhandling of Russia and a 12-12 tie with Scotland. Shujaa secured its runner-up position because of an infinitely better point differential than the Scotsmen who also had 6 points in pool play.

The 2nd position in pool play earned them a date with France; a team Shujaa dispatched off 28-7 to set up a date with Argentina. Not to be denied, Anyimba’s Boy’s sent Los Pumas packing with a 15-12 squeaker and along the way, they punched their ticket to the Main Cup Final – either against South Africa in a rematch of their opening game or a mano-a-mano against Fiji. 

Either way, Shujaa had its hands full. 

The lads from Suva had other ideas rather than allow an-all Africa Main Cup finals. 

Fiji bested SA in pulsating 26-21 thriller in Singapore’s National Stadium and the stage was thus set for a 2016 Main Cup Final between then-three-times winner Fiji and arguably the most popular team (and fans) in the World Rugby HSBC Sevens Series – Shujaa of Kenya.

As previously written, the finals weren’t even close. With first half tries from Oscar Ayodi and Collins Injera, Kenya took a 20-0 lead into the locker room against a Fiji team that had seemingly expended a lot of energy in their semi-final clash with Blitzbokke.

A rejuvenated Jerry Tuwai squad opened the second half with a try and conversion to bring the islanders to within thirteen of Anyimba’s squad and that was as close as the 2018-2019 champions would get. Kenya’s response was as emphatic as it was stylish. Capped by a scintillating display of speed, deception and shifting of gears by winger Nelson Oyoo (“O-You” according to the announcer), Shujaa dropped another ten points on the Fijians while holding them to their one and only try/conversion to lift their first Main Cup since they first appeared in the tournament in Dubai 1999 with an emphatic 30-7 victory.

In the euphoric moments after the victory, many newbies to the sport would have been forgiven for thinking that their team’s victory over Fiji was in keeping with Kenya’s tradition of producing world-conquering athletes. That perspective would have been as off the mark as it would have been one worthy of a deeper dive, i.e., WHY Kenya had not been as consistent in the tournament as it had/has been in other sports namely distance running – but that’s a story for another day. As written by Charles Ouko in a piece “All 40 years after Watembezi, Kenya harvest what Omaido began in 1986,” the 2016 Main Cup triumph was set in motion over a generation ago by names that form a smile across my mouth any time they are mentioned:

Alunga Omolo, Oburru-Otema Ramogo, Jesse Onsando, Ham Onsando, JJ Masiga, Anyiga Edebe, Pritt Nyandat, Jeff Radier, Jimmy “Green” Owino (RIP), Jacko and Walter Omaido, Eric and Hoffman Ayodo, Paul Akatsa, Max Muniafu, Richard Njoba, and many other world-class Kenyan rugby players who excelled away from the cameras.

And long before MOB Anyimba’s team lifted the 2016 Main Cup in the Singapore leg of the tournament, a rag-tag group of former students from Nairobi School (Patch), Lenana (Changes), Cardinal Otunga (Cards), Kisumu Boys (KB), and elsewhere around the country whiled away their nippy Maseno evenings tossing around a rugby ball some two hundred miles away from the epicenters of the institutions that gave Kenya her rugby giants – namely Nairobi School, Lenana, Saint Mary’s (Saints) and Rift Valley Academy (RVA).

My involvement and memories of Rugby or “Rugger” outside Nairobi School started in 1978 after my 4th Form exit exam known as the East African Certificate of Education (EACE) or “O” Levels. Having completed Forms I, II, III, and Form IV in Nairobi School, I went to Maseno School for my Forms V and VI – where I sat for my “A” Levels in 1979. 

While in Maseno, I met ex-Lenana students Ken Nyanjom and Ben Ayoki. Along with former Cardinal Otunga students Charles Ochang and William Odoyo (RIP), we were joined by Maurice Ochieng, George Gaya, Fred Owino, Ken Oyando, Abraham Owiro, Jeam Agutu, Omolo Ochang, Emmanuel “Thunder” Ombaka, James “BB” Ochieng, Claudio Oduor, Omondi Koga (RIP) and a host of other (Maseno School) students from across the country. Together, we bonded over our semi- and tri-weekly “rugger” scrimmages played on the lush green field just in front of the school’s main administrative buildings – about three hundred or so yards from Stansfield I and II, Britton, and Owen dormitories. Back then, these weekly toss-arounds of the rugby ball initially drew curious glances in a school and a region (Nyanza/Western) where soccer (football) and field hockey reigned supreme. At the time, I did not harbor any illusions that rugby would rival “pien” (football) or hockey in popularity – within the school, regionally or nationally.

The year was 1978 and the names of Argentina’s Mario Kempes and Daniel Passarella along with Dutchmen Johnny Rep and the Van de Kerkhof twins – all World Cup finalists – sat atip the tongues of most teenage boys as did those of local stars such as Paul “Cobra” Oduwo, Allan Thigo, Mike Ogolla “Machine” (Gor Mahia) and JJ Masiga, Abdul Baraza, Joseph Mullira, Mahamoud Abbas (Abaluhya/AFC Leopards). 

Similarly, my nemesis and friend Peter Akatsa, Gilbert “Gil Singh” Ogolla (RIEP), Mike Omondi, Simi Goyal and the indefatigable Kisumu Boys (KB) Hockey Team of the period totally ruled the roost in field hockey – regionally AND nationally.

When I left Maseno after sitting for my “A” Levels in ’79, Seven-a-Side rugby still hadn’t joined Football, Hockey and Basketball as annual (school) events outside the previously mentioned “Big Four” rugby-playing institutions. Not in St. Mary’s Yala or Kakamega Boys aka “Green Commandos,” Vihiga High or Kisumu Day High School (different from Kisumu BOYS High School) was rugby on the school’s sports’ calendar in any of these schools.   

On the other hand, it became readily apparent during these evening scrimmages that the “Focus-on-the-Fundamentals” approach to the game’s introduction outside Nairobi wedded it with a talent pool of athletes eternally endowed with the physical gifts (size, breakaway speed, hand-eye coordination, quickness) and intellectual/mental acuity that were absolutely tailor-made for the sport. Given this simple fact, it didn’t surprise those of us who had transferred from the traditional powerhouses of the game that Rugby was quickly adopted across the region – outside Nairobi; that the likes of MOB Benjamin Anyimba, Vihiga Boys Colin Injera and his brother Mumias High School stand-out Humphrey Kanyange formed an impressive pipeline of Rugby talent OUTSIDE my former high school Nairobi and its nemesis, Lenana.

So this weekend, as we cheer on this generation of Kenya’s rugby talent in Carson, spare a thought for their predecessors on whose very broad shoulders they’ll be standing as they take on the rest of the world.

Comments

comments